I have been bruised and battered by a number of experiences over the last 15 years – from the termination of my PhD studies, bereavement and the drama of my career muck up and I now have a number of years of trying to make sense of it all. I am not sure I am anywhere near understanding it all and I suspect that might always be the case.
I don’t think I will ever really understand the motivation of the people who made me stop studying my PhD whilst letting others continue – I didn’t ask at the time because I was so shell-shocked by the decision. I have spent many years avoiding thinking too much about the emotional impact but that hasn’t been helpful and returning to an academic job in a research intensive university has surfaced a great deal of thoughts and feelings about PhDs – their worth or otherwise etc.
I am very aware that there are many varieties of PhDs out there and one of my issues was that I was striving to produce the perfect thesis and that was never going to happen nor is it possible. I was very struck by Pat Thomson’s blog when she wrote about students being reluctant to share their writing (1) – this is a sign of quite a complex issue and one I could really relate to in my experiences 15 years ago. I was writing when I could but I was never asked to show my writing on a regular basis – I wasn’t given meaningful deadlines and wasn’t required to evidence my thoughts. I am verbally articulate and easily distracted and I would have welcomed some help in getting me out of my stuck place and assumptions were made about my capability. That stuck place is still hovering in the background of my current experiences – I compare myself with others and always find myself wanting – I am not sure what is expected and now that I am realising that different subjects expect very different outputs in relation to their scholarly products. I can see how my perfectionism and chronic lack of self-belief ensured that I continued with self-defeating behaviours and that those behaviours are still stalking me now. Paying attention and being kind about all of this seems to be key in shifting “stuff”.
Getting my s**t together after the traumatic events of May 2015 has not been straightforward and the learning that I have encountered feels like it is very important. I have a compulsion to share it and utilise it to help others who might be dealing with the erosion of hope and the erasure of credibility. I know I am not the only person to have been bullied, belittled, misrepresented and lied about – people will cover up and deny to protect their positions. They will also forget about it very quickly and greet you enthusiastically 2 years later as though they have never had a role in nearly destroying a person’s mental health – denial is quite something and I guess might be a survival response and motivated by self-protection.
When I encounter practitioners who resist reflection, avoid clinical supervision and appear to have a very small window of self-awareness I will now keep a good distance from them. I have learnt to avoid the mood hooverers and those seeking shelter in the victim corner of the drama triangle (2). I can spot these folk quite quickly and my burnout contributed to my not being help to spot them when I made the decision to move from the University 4 years ago. I needed to be needed and the “good works” of the organisation I went to work with seemed a balm for my fractured soul – but it soon became obvious that the work done was mediocre and that the level of incompetence and delusion was scary and distressing.
I clearly remember realising, 6 weeks into the role, that I needed to develop an exit strategy and time limit my exposure to the toxicity and corrosiveness. I was fortunate to have leadership coaching sessions and found the time and space to reflect out loud about my thoughts, feelings and observations. This skilled analysis of my experiences certainly enabled me to escape before I was severely damaged by the malevolence at work. I was also extremely lucky to connect with one member of staff who had great integrity, gritty authenticity and a moral compass that taught me a lot about how we can work with compassion and honesty. Her wisdom and role modelling has ever since my exit been a constant companion and has provided valuable guidance and insight on numerous occasions – no doubt the very best outcome from a horrible time.
My move from higher education to clinical practice in 2014 went very wrong partly because I was stuck being 18 when I was interacting with many of my colleagues. The type of nursing I was observing and the personalities involved upset me and diminished my capacity to cope – I have only just begun to fully appreciate the limitations that I was working with in the last few months – distance and other similar experiences have illuminated what was going on.
Leaving nursing has been liberating and enabling – an unexpected and welcome experience. I am staying curious with the thoughts and feelings – following Susan David’s advice and using emotions as data not directions (3). Unlearning is definitely much harder than learning new stuff – noticing habits that need changing and also noticing the emotional variations attached to the transition from one state to another.
For many years I have longed to belong but have found this really difficult and have struggled to ally myself to a group or cause. Many of the people with whom I have worked have fallen short of my standards and have disappointed me a great deal. I now realise that much of this is a projection of my own self-criticism and a chronic lack of self-belief. I have become disillusioned and disaffected very quickly and am now aware of the challenge that habit creates in finding a space to thrive and flourish. Not feeling that I deserve anything else has been a chronic problem and self-compassion is teaching me to reduce the criticism and judgement.
All of this has contributed to a continuing self- knowledge that has surprised me and hasn’t always been very easy. I have navigated adversity and encountered superficial do-gooders who work to inflate their ego rather than working with a sense of clear purpose and meaning. I have become adept at spotting bulls**t and noticing the mismatch between rhetoric and reality.
I am beginning to recognise that these difficulties are helping me find a way of helping the students I work with discover a better way of being. Failure and muck-ups are great teachers and the lessons I have learnt are priceless and probably greater than the learning from the courses I have attended and the qualifications I have earned. Experiential learning hasn’t taught me academic discipline and critical thinking – those essential requirements of successful scholarship in many subjects and one that I find the biggest challenge. I also realise that none of my taught educational courses have equipped me with the skills of close reading, the discipline of writing complex documents or editing more than 4000 words. I find the undergraduates in the arts, social sciences and humanities have more thinking skills than I had fully appreciated or encountered before and they can articulate coherent and cogent arguments. Compelling and lucid they are truly impressive and I know I can learn a lot from working with them and I am confident that I can attain some of those attributes.
What I would like to do is move from musings such as this to an integration of the literature and read stuff and then position myself along with a synthesis of the existing evidence base. I am not sure how to proceed with this at this time and I guess I am also aware that I don’t actually want to write academic style work as that won’t be read by many and won’t have the impact in relation to engaging the reluctant and the sceptical – the ivory towers of academia seem too lofty and removed from the lived experience of most people. However viewing my musings through a theoretical lens might be a way of raising my cultural capital (4) – increasing my sense of self-belief and self-esteem, increasing my motivation and giving me the fuel to propel myself beyond the stuck place I retreat to when troubled by all of this discomfort.
This blog post is a start and a way of writing as a way of knowing (5).